Lake Creek – Then and Now

A sad fact is that public land livestock grazing is so pervasive out west (around 300 million acres of public land) that most people have become accustomed to the image of livestock degraded landscapes and have little idea what might be.

Left: Condition of state land on Lake Creek photo: WWP - July 24, 1994;  Right: Condition of state land - July 18, 2007 - photo: Idaho Department of Lands
Lake Creek was the straw the broke the bovine's back – it prompted the organization of Idaho Watersheds Project (now Western Watersheds Project). Left: Condition of state land on Lake Creek, July 24, 1994 © Lynne Stone; Right: Condition of state land on Lake Creek July 18, 2007

Recently, WWP received a report dated July 18, 2007 from the Idaho Department of Lands which included the photographs below in the right column and the two final pictures documenting the restoration taking place on the 1.2 mile state land along Lake Creek.

A bit of the backstory :

In September 1993 Jon Marvel, Linn Kincannon and Lynne Stone took a hike up Lake Creek, on the East Fork Salmon River Watershed.  They found fish and wildlife habitat on this 1.2 mile stretch of state land that had been brutalized by livestock for many years.  The dire condition of this landscape and stream prompted Marvel to look into the Idaho state Land Board to learn as much as he could about how state lands were managed, the leasing process, everything. “I found out these things are competitive if more than one bidder applies,” Marvel said.  “I bid on the lease.” It took years of back and forth in the courts, including then Idaho Watersheds Project being awarded three consecutive victories at the Idaho Supreme Court on the same day, before the lease would be held by conservationists and the 1.2 miles along the state land on Lake Creek would be rested from livestock grazing. Photos on the left were taken of the same 1.2 mile stretch by members of WWP (when it was IWP) in 1994 on July 24, 1994, those on the right were provided by the Idaho Department of Lands dated July 18, 2007 :

Grazed: Lake Creek East Fork Salmon River Watershed Idaho state department of land

(July 24, 1994) Photos : Idaho Watersheds Project (now WWP) click to enlarge

Recovering: Lake Creek East Fork Salmon River Watershed Idaho state department of land

(July 18, 2007) Photos : Idaho Department of Lands click to enlarge

© Lynne Stone – Riparian habitat deprived organic matter like grass dries more quickly, erodes more easily, weeds replaces beneficial vegetation, and the water level lowers, dropping below the roots of willows and other riparian vegetation.

Beavers return and their dams restore the floodplain, cool water and filter sediment for fish, store water recharging the aquifer, and promote general stream-bank (riparian) health

© Lynne Stone – Much biomass is removed from the system. The organic matter removed by livestock will not cycle back into the soil, reduces forage for wildlife, and will not serve as nesting and/or hiding habitat for wildlife.
Lush stream-side vegetation stabilizes stream-banks

The ungrazed vegetation feeds wildlife, provides habitat for voles, shrews, bugs and insects that nourish fish, birds, and other wildlife – forming the basis for the entire food-chain

© Lynne Stone -Sediment pollutes the stream as livestock trample the bank. The sediment settles in between gravels depriving salmon fish eggs of the oxygen they need to thrive.
Recovering a stream from livestock grazing can take decades.

Lush grasses feed riparian soils too – the rich organic matter resulting from dead and decaying plant-life become a part of the soil acting like a sponge, filtering and holding more water longer, promoting even more plant-life

© Lynne Stone – Deprived rich organic matter given grass eaten by cattle, these soils do not hold as much water, lush vegetation is replaced by weeds, the whole area loses moisture.

Diverse and complex plant-life forms and structure promote a strong foundation to a vibrant, resilient system that will harbor bountiful fish and wildlife

© Lynne Stone – "Upland" species like sage brush begin to encroach on the drier habitat, replacing willows.

Clean water meanders

© Lynne Stone – Mounding or "hummocking" develops when livestock hooves pound the soil. Organic matter is lost, soils get pushed above water drying soil & vegetation, compaction deprives roots of oxygen. Area loses its 'sponginess'

Lush plant-life covers stream channel.
Lake Creek. Photo: Idaho Department of Lands 2007
Lake Creek. Photo: Idaho Department of Lands 2007

Addition from Ralph Maughan.

Some people might say, “Well, what does the restored area look like in autumn, in the fall.”  Maybe it looks like all the other brown, overgrazed places of which we have seen photos?” I wondered, so last October I went to the Western Watersheds Project lease and took photos. One large photo is on the link below. Many more could be posted.

You won’t find many places in central Idaho in a riparian zone that time of year that look like this. Of course it is ungrazed, at least by cattle or sheep. Large photo of Lake Creek Canyon on the lease. Oct. 5, 2008. Photo copyright  © Ralph Maughan.

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Brian Ertz is Media Director for Western Watersheds Project




  1. smalltownID Avatar

    There is no doubting cattle’s detrimental effects on the landscape. That said, before and after pictures from Marvel mean about as much to me as the folks pushing their weight loss programs.

    Marvel really needs to put dates on his pictures and throw the ones out that show spring versus fall it would really help his effort, although I get the feeling he doesn’t really care about recruiting ppl to “the cause”.

    He lost a lot of potential support in Pocatello at a meeting a year back by insulting ppl’s intelligence with pictures (without dates of spring and fall – you could tell bc the willows were nearly bare even above where cattle graze) and saying things like “the old timers think they have an inherent right to the land…but they took it through conquest” and then in the same breath saying they are going to take it back through litigation.

    I don’t know if he still does presentations on behalf of WWP like he has in the past – obviously you would know. Obviously you didn’t make the same mistake.

    just a little feedback

  2. Maska Avatar


    These pictures are indeed worth a whole cattle truckload of words in demonstrating the dramatic results of removing grazing from a stretch of streamside habitat. Now if we could just get them on the desk of every Congress critter….

    Or how about a photo montage for the hallway outside the Oval Office?

  3. Brian Ertz Avatar

    smalltown ID,

    the photos on the left were taken July 24, 1994 – the photos on the right were taken by the Idaho Department of Lands and the date on the report lists July 18, 2007 as noted above the pictures. That’s a six day spread – I suspect there are those out there (probably with big hats) that would find a six day spread objectionable too .

    You can click on the photos for larger picture and higher resolution.


    WWP monitors, especially last year, have been taking a hell of a lot of photos demonstrating the before/after of last year all over central Idaho as well as utilization level and we’ve had an ecologist working his hump off documenting extensive ecological contrast. It’s profound. I should organize them for the net. These are of the first stretch that inspired the creation of WWP and are over a significant length of time… it’s much more significant when there are years of restoration … I agree that we need to get these in front of decision-makers …

  4. smalltownID Avatar

    Like i said, you didn’t make the same mistake. Just thought you might appreciate some feedback with your position and all from someone without a big hat.

  5. Brian Ertz Avatar

    oh – just caught your meaning — thanks

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar

    the photos on the left (denuded) were taken before the 1994 grazing season – before livestock were turned our

  7. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page


    That looks awesome. I’m curious to know how much active restoration took place. I’ve found that active restoration can help speed the healing process if done correctly, particularly on smaller streams that have less energy.

  8. Brian Ertz Avatar

    Tom – there wasn’t any active restoration that took place on the state lease land – it’s all passive restoration.

    The key is to get the livestock off and keep them off … entirely, even if you’re going to actively plant or seed – IMO, of course.

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I added a 1000 by 600 pixel photo of my own of Lake Creek taken last October. It is at the bottom of the post.

    Here is the direct URL if you don’t want to read my addition

  10. chuck parker Avatar
    chuck parker

    The destruction of public lands by domestic livestock–especially riparian habitat–is tragic.

    One of the best birding spots in North America is the San Pedro River is southern Arizona, and the only reason a river exists is that cattle are fenced out.

    Ranchers and their allies like to pretend that you can have cattle and healthy riparian areas in the Southwest, but that’s a crock. The record clearly shows that cattle and healthy riparian habitat are mutually exclusive.

  11. smalltownID Avatar

    I think where we are really missing the boat is springs’ water retention and water retention in general. It would be interesting to see some studies relative to cattle grazing regimes. In some areas it may be even more imoportant ecologically than compromised riparian areas.

  12. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    One of the things I noticed in the Lake Creek area compared to the last time I visited, which was about 2002, was the increase in the water table.

  13. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    That’s encouraging – especially in the East Fork country, which might be some of the driest country in Central Idaho. I’m looking around for a private restoration project in some of the Salmon River headwaters, so it’s good to see that it can be done with these relatively poor soils in arid country that we have here.

  14. Eric T. Avatar
    Eric T.

    Does WWP receive subsidies like other ranchers since they hold the grazing privileges?

  15. Brian Ertz Avatar


    no – WWP does not receive subsidies for holding the grazing privileges .

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Brian Ertz